Environment and Nature in New Zealand August 2008

Voice in the Wilderness: Historical Christian Attitudes to the Environment and the Emergence of A Rocha

David Calderwood
University of Waikato

Sometime in 1993 Luis, an orchardist in the Algarve, stomped up to the environmental centre, cursing in Portuguese. When the director emerged, Luis said to him, 'Senõr Peter, I know you love warblers but I want to shoot them all! They are eating my lettuces! My family needs them to live off.' After Peter Harris had calmed Luis down, he asked for three weeks to solve the problem. As Harris himself put it, he 'sent down some poor student to look into it'. At the end of this period the 'poor' student had uncovered two important facts. First, Luis altered his normal pattern of cultivation. Seeking to maximise his land use, he had planted his lettuces among the fruit trees. Second, since warblers did not fly more than eight metres from the trees for fear of sparrowhawks, Peter explained to Luis that if he planted his lettuces further than this from the trees, the warblers would not eat them and he need not shoot them.[1]

At the time Peter Harris was running an environmental project in the Alvor estuary in Portugal's Algarve called A Rocha[2] that has since mushroomed into a significant international organisation with projects in eighteen countries. Despite being a member of recognised international environmental groups,[3] A Rocha is not well known. Part of the reason is that A Rocha is a Christian organisation. Christian organisations have not generally been involved in conservation efforts and were slow to respond to the growing environmental crisis, so a fully Christian conservation group was unusual. Moreover, during the twentieth century the evolving conviction that faith and science do not mix was accepted by Christian and non-Christian alike. Yet here was a Christian group willingly using scientific method to solve ecological problems. Also Luis held the belief that his needs and those of the environment were incompatible, which arises from an historical interpretation of Christianity that is still pervasive in wider thinking. This has two main roots, first that the environment is there to be dominated and used by people and, second, in an anthropocentric view of God held by many Christians.

In this essay I examine these attitudes in the context of Anglican and evangelical Christian views of the environment during the last forty to fifty years, focussing on how they have changed and found expression in A Rocha. I start with an historical challenge to accepted Christian attitudes.

The Lynn White Challenge, 'Poor' Christianity and Green Pantheism

In 1967, the historian Lynn White, Junior, wrote an article in Science magazine claiming that Christianity was responsible for the current ecological crisis because it gave humanity dominion over nature. According to White, people were made in the image of God and therefore not part of nature. By divorcing humanity from nature, White argued that Christians had desacralised nature and opened the door to unlimited exploitation resulting in environmental degradation. White's solution was either to form a new religion or rethink the old.[4]

He wrote his article during the counterculture movement that challenged the status quo in the West in the 1960s. Amongst a reaction to an economic 'rat race' lifestyle, calls for social justice, black and women's rights, protests against nuclear war and concerns about pollution and wider ecological damage there was also an engagement with religions from the East as an alternative to 'sterile' Christianity.[5] From this type of thinking came the Green movement.

Most Greens argue that as we are not separate from nature we therefore must live sustainably as part of nature and in accord with its principles. As an antidote to desacralised nature, there has re-emerged a type of pantheism[6] akin to scientist James Lovelock's view that the planet's ecosystems and all living creatures in them should be regarded as an interdependent superorganism, a view the Greens share.[7] This kind of pantheism has found ground among Liberal Christians.[8]

Frances A. Schaeffer, a Swiss philosopher and evangelical theologian, analysed and critiqued White's article in his 1970 book, Pollution and the Death of Man. He rejected both Green pantheism and a 'poor' Christianity thesis as inadequate answers.[9] He argued that Western cultural views towards nature, although rooted in a form of Christian tradition, did not go as far as acknowledging the sovereignty of the God that had replaced the gods of nature. Humanity, having accepted that dominion was theirs by right, attempted to rule nature autonomously without any reference to God. This is what Schaeffer means by a 'poor' Christianity. To him, the religious aspect of Christianity had been rejected, leaving only a secular shell. A rethink of Christian attitudes to the environment may have been necessary but Schaeffer insisted that what was needed first was a return to Biblical Christianity, which included environmental care and respect.[10] Nature should be held sacred because God made it.

Faith, Science and the Christian Recovery Narrative

Natural science had germinated and flourished in the Christian West.[11] Western science began as an exploration of God's universe but eventually came to explain nature without reference to God at all. The popular idea that developed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that scientists saw everything from a purely naturalistic and largely deterministic viewpoint. God existed only in the realm of faith. Science and faith operated in two completely separate areas, having no communication except to argue with each other from time to time over relevance and origins.

The historical reality was far more complex. Many serious scientists operated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a strong Christian faith. New Zealand historians James Beattie and John Stenhouse argue that these centuries were never completely secularised.[12] Furthermore, dominion theology was a religious impetus to tame and make nature useful and became a strong historical narrative. Carolyn Merchant, an American feminist historian, has described it as an ascentionist Christian recovery narrative. In her article, 'Reinventing Eden', she charts how this recovery narrative informed Western society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[13] Nature was seen as a fall from Eden. Modern man recreated the garden by applying the Christian idea of domination with modern technological science, capitalism and labour. The Garden of Eden was restored by cultivating the world to provide for people.[14]

This view has permeated widely into Western culture to justify 'taming' nature. Thus civilisation is set against the wildness of the natural world, meshing with the nineteenth century idea of progress. The most important implication of this recovery narrative was that humans had the right to use natural resources, to scientifically cultivate and 'improve' nature solely for their benefit. In the twentieth century, technology has accelerated this process. It is deeply ingrained in capitalist societies where continuous economic growth is the modern sign of progress, sustainable or otherwise. So the narratives of dominion and progress continue as the basis of modern economies, to produce a better standard of living for all. Therefore, conservative Christians prefer this to the 'New Age' pantheism of the Greens and other environmentalist movements that challenge it. However, the Greens believed that only a different kind of thinking than that which drove most of modern society could bring about necessary environmental change.[15]

Environmentalist narrative sees the recovery story as false: We have actually moved from Eden to a degraded desert. Advances in science and technology only accelerated decline in nature. I suggest, then, that White was actually critiquing Schaeffer's 'poor' Christianity, a perspective that was adapted by Western culture to justify its progress after it had moved away from its Christian basis. He was not, in other words, critiquing Christianity itself.  It has not helped that many Christians have been uncritical of this form of restoration narrative. Nevertheless, it has been an inadequate view of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature from a truly Christian stance.

Christian Attitudes to the Environment

Sean McDonagh, sociologist and theologian, points out that environmental degradation occurred well before the Biblical era and by cultures outside Christianity. He goes on to say that White overstates his case by claiming that his view - Christian orthodoxy without qualification - ignored the other strands of Biblical thought, particularly those referring to the stewardship role of Christians in caring for the environment.[16]

Flawed or not, there was enough truth in White's position to act as a clarion call for Christians to reconsider the environment in a more balanced way. Many books on Christianity and the environment refer to White's article as a starting point for taking nature seriously in Christian theology and ecological action.[17] This was not universal and it was not widely taken up, except by a few like Francis Schaeffer, due to an anthropocentric view of God.

There are four broad ways anthropocentrism shapes Christian attitudes to the environment. I have already covered the first, dominion theology. The second is that spirituality is more important than the physical world. This view dates back to the beginnings of Christianity but originates in Greek philosophy where the spiritual is regarded as good and matter evil. Although it was condemned as heresy in the fourth century at the Council of Nicea in Italy, this idea remained in Christian thinking. Its modern expression is that God is only interested in people.[18]

The third, the apocalyptic, holds that ultimate redemption of the earth only occurs through its being destroyed and recreated by God.[19] It is at its most destructive when wedded to dominion theology which then encourages Christians to plunder natural resources in the belief that it hastens this process. The last attitude, the providential, acknowledges the problem of environmental degradation but argues that God would look after us anyway and intervene to sort out the mess.

Accepted uncritically, these anthropocentric[20] attitudes lead to inaction or indifference towards the environment. If the natural world does not matter or is to be destroyed, so the argument goes, it is futile to care for it. Anthropocentrism makes it a struggle between human needs and aspirations and the natural world. At best, the natural world is only cared for as a secondary consideration. This explains why most Christian groups have been slow to be involved in environmental action.

A Rocha: foundation

The founder of A Rocha, Peter Harris, felt the pressure of the predominant anthropocentric view. Wondering how his passion for bird watching could possibly find a place in his duties as an Anglican vicar, he finally decided that pastoral[21] work should prevail. However, immersing himself in pastoral work on England's Merseyside in 1980 only deepened his feelings towards wildlife and its protection. 'God did not seem to be entirely lining up on the expected side of the conflict'.[22]

Richard Storey, who later became involved in A Rocha's second project in Lebanon and subsequently set up A Rocha in New Zealand, described his experience of anthropocentrism in an Auckland University Christian cell group in the early 1990s. 'Although they were wonderful Christians...and I had a huge respect for them, they felt that God was only interested in people and had no particular love for creation. I really struggled with that'.[23] He soon discovered that not everyone held this view.

The wider group this cell was part of encouraged us to think Christianly about our studies. So I read a couple of books about the environment and Christianity which made it clear that the Bible does talk about the value of creation...and that gave me a lot of hope.[24]

Storey was one of many Christians who were developing a love for science and the environment during the 1980s and 1990s. Christian churches and denominations were also becoming involved.

Wider Church Responses

The biggest church response was the Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) programme inaugurated in 1983 at the sixth assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver. In January 1990, eminent scientists issued an 'Open Letter to the Religious Community' that stated that global environmental problems were 'of such magnitude' that 'a perspective must be recognised...as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension'.[25] Sections of the scientific community recognised that Christian faith had a part to play.

In March 1990, the meeting of JPIC in Korea decided to resolve the dominion over nature issue by 'dethron[ing] humanity from its unique role as "the image of God"'.[26] This was unacceptable to evangelicals. The AuSable Institute for Environmental Studies had earlier been established in 1979 in Northern Michigan as a centre for Christian environmental education.[27] They were central in forming the Evangelical Environment Network in 1992 which produced An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation (1994) to assert that the earth belongs to God and Christians are stewards responsible to the Creator for their treatment of the environment. Several hundred church leaders around the world endorsed it as a counter to the JPIC position and to demonstrate the concern of many evangelical Christians.[28]

Peter Harris, while endorsing its aims in 2000, added that this work could simply represent another delayed Christian response to environmental concerns. The true declaration to indifferent evangelicals and anyone else, he maintained, was in environmental action although that often met with incomprehension or opposition.[29] He observed that along with Christians passionate about the environment were those who hated 'tree huggers' and were as likely to shoot as to save the next endangered spotted owl they saw. Often they attended the same church.[30] Loren Wilkinson, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at Regent College, who has been associated with AuSable since the 1980s and A Rocha for more than a decade, wrote his own book on Christians and environmental care in 1982, Earthkeeping. He was criticised for adopting nature worship from the New Age movement and therefore branded un-Christian.[31]

Richard Storey met with similar incomprehension. He wryly noted that persuading Christians to support him to save wetlands in Lebanon as a legitimate Christian activity was only slightly easier than convincing his family that working in an area with civil wars and regular armed incursions from Israel and Syria was a sensible thing to do.[32]

Renewed Christian emphasis on the environment filtered through to the wider Anglican Church. For example, Lambeth XII, the international conference of Anglican bishops that meets every ten years, urged the faithful in 1988 that stewardship of God's earth is a necessary part of Christian discipleship. In 1990, the Anglican Consultative Council defined mission in the following terms: 'to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom...teach, baptise and nurture new believers...respond to human need by loving service...transform the unjust structures of society' and added 'to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth'. Lambeth XIII produced an eco-theology prefaced with 'an urgent need for the Church to reflect on Scripture and Christian tradition in the light of the ecological crisis...to bring their faith into an effective engagement... [B]iblical insights...provide a firm foundation for a contemporary ecological theology'.[33] The liturgical calendar includes at least one sermon on creation care and churches are encouraged to form creation care groups with a practical focus. Such groups have formed in New Zealand Anglican parishes in the last five years.[34]

The A Rocha Story

A Rocha did not come about as a response to the attitudinal changes amongst evangelical and Anglican Christians. The movement evolved first, with the education of other Christians coming later. Peter Harris found that deliberately living in urban Merseyside did not provide insulation against nature. Birds used this area as a migratory point and there remained a tension between his bird watching activities and parish duties. Yet he and his wife, Miranda, still wanted to centre their life in pastoral care. When an opportunity in Kenya fell through, Peter turned instead to the possibility of an environmental project in Portugal. He was surprised when his wife supported him enthusiastically and agreed to take their young family there without any clear idea how it would work in practice.

So, in September 1983, they moved to the Portuguese Algarve and A Rocha was set up as a trust. The Harris family moved from one temporary accommodation to another, simultaneously learned the language, adjusted to the culture and studied the local environment with the ultimate aim of establishing a centre. It took two years to find Cruzinha[35] on a small hill leading down to the shore of the Alvor estuary. This was set up as a centre for field studies, eventually attracting many Christian and other students seeking to apply their scientific knowledge in a practical way. A Rocha's ethos was to understand the Alvor environment first, then to educate its human inhabitants in ways to preserve it without depriving them of their living. The ultimate goal was government protection but A Rocha realised that those natural habitats could quickly disappear through pollution or by developers wanting to exploit them.[36]

Visitors to Cruzinha often wanted to know how to initiate similar projects in their own countries. So Peter and Miranda became A Rocha international co-ordinators in 1995, travelling the world to visit Christians wanting to start one. By 2000 there were projects in seven countries. The Kenya project was established in 1998 after four years of relational work to preserve the last forty kilometres of coastal forest, which supported many fragile habitats.[37] However, with locals needing to sell the wood to pay for their children's education, a tension developed between preserving nature and meeting people's needs. The solution was the forest itself. Local people could make money from conducting eco-tours rather than chopping down the trees. A long-term study centre was finally established in 2004 once the forest had gained official preservation.[38]

In 2001, A Rocha's first urban project started in the Southall suburb of London in ninety acres of polluted land that had largely been used as a rubbish dump. Despite this it had a thriving ecosystem including many varieties of plants, several species of butterfly and a rare frog. Controversy arose as the restoration project went beyond merely cleaning up to sculpting the landscape to make it aesthetically pleasing. Again, this involved establishing a balance between the need for Southall residents to have a natural park to lift their spirits in the midst of the concrete wasteland they lived in and the needs of the natural ecosystem.[39]

Another project has emerged in the Lebanon. When Richard Storey visited there in 2002, he did not realise it was an A Rocha project as he had never heard of the schemes. His desire to be involved in a practical ecological project drew him. He was impressed with the importance of saving the Aammiq wetland in the Bekaa valley, as it is an important resting point for migratory birds travelling thousands of kilometres from Africa, Asia and Europe. In 2004 he brought back the A Rocha vision to New Zealand.[40]

Most A Rocha groups started with a particular project and built the organisation around it. Storey began with a discussion group for Waikato Christians interested in science and in making an environmental difference. These debates began in 2006, exploring what it meant to have an eco-theology. So the organisation developed before any environmental project. A Rocha Aotearoa New Zealand was launched only in 2008, the eighteenth country in which A Rocha operates.[41] Its aim is to work with other conservation groups on agreed tasks including scientific data sharing plus the education of Christian groups and churches about the importance of creation care and eco-theology. Ultimately this may lead to dialogue and possible co-operation with the New Zealand Greens, but without political agendas.


A Rocha fits Carolyn Merchant's idea of a Christian recovery narrative although its philosophy is not one of dominion. Its members agree with environmentalist observations that cultivation and domination to improve nature has not restored Eden. A Rocha rejects an anthropocentric view of God: the group acknowledges that nature is not there solely for humans but nor does it require a choice between human needs and environmental ones. As their work has shown, cultivation and civilisation can be in balance with the needs of nature. This and the ethos of understanding, preserving, protecting and working with nature has informed A Rocha throughout its history. But it is held lightly. Ecosystems that have been studied and laboured on at length may be wiped out by pollution, accident or greed at any time. So there is a healthy realism to their approach. 'Recovery of a lost Eden is not A Rocha's goal. Instead it is preserving and restoring the one rapidly disappearing now by using science hand in hand with Christian faith. Furthermore, for A Rocha, the environment is being resacralised for Christians, as Lynn White hoped, not through a new religion but by rediscovering the Christian truth that nature deserves to be respected and cared for because God made it. Humans are stewards, not owners. Many Christians have accepted the stewardship theology but there is still a huge number who remain unconvinced and continue to hold the old attitudes. Due to the influence of A Rocha and other Christian environmental groups many more hold the new attitudes than thirty, forty or fifty years ago. As Peter Harris, founder of A Rocha observed, the Christian church is the largest non-Governmental organisation in the world.[42] As the eco-theologies developed since the 1970s continue to be adopted by increasing numbers of Christians, the potential for worthwhile environmental change in the future brings great hope.

[1] Peter Harris, 'Creation and Community', in Creation and Gospel (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001), Disc 4, Track 4.

[2] A Rocha is Portuguese for the Rock.

[3] World Conservation Union and Conservation International. A Rocha also has links to European Union environmental policy making.

4 Lynn White, Junior, 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis', Science, 155, (March 10, 1967), pp. 1203-07.

[5] A book that covers the counterculture from a Christian point of view is Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973).

6 Francis A. Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), p.79.

[7] These views are explained in his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

8 New Zealand theologian, Lloyd Geering, thinks that we need to worship our planet in order to save it. Lloyd Geering, The Greening of Christianity (Wellington: St. Andrews Trust, 2005), p. 34. However, he seems to accept the scientific view that earth is non-living. Geering, p. 35.

9 Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, p. 28.

[10] Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, p. 28.

11 Schaeffer's view was that it could only do so in such a context.  Early scientists were also Christians and believed that a God of order had created the natural world, therefore it , too, had order. So it was worthwhile to find out how it worked.  See Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), pp. 30-32.

[12] James Beattie and John Stenhouse, 'God and the Natural World in Nineteenth-century New Zealand', in Christianity, Modernity and Culture, edited by John Stenhouse and assisted by G.A. Wood (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2005), pp 180-183. They argue that this is especially true in New Zealand, which has never been as totally secular as the popular view implies.

[13] She focuses particularly on US expansionism in the North American continent. This section is a summary of her ideas. See Carolyn Merchant, 'Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative', in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1996), pp.132-59.

14 There was a distinction between cultivation and wilderness, the latter often defined as beautiful and inspiring but useless for cultivation.

[15] In New Zealand, the Greens adopted a liberal framework of values from the outset, including social justice, women's rights and gay rights alongside strong ecological concerns. Initially they called themselves the Values party and, in 1972, was the first Green party in the world. See Andrei S. Markovits and Philip S. Gorski, The German Left: Red, Green and Beyond (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), p.299 (footnote 37). Because these values were antithetical to evangelical Christian views, they provoked opposition and also divided Anglican opinion. This situation has continued to the present. Therefore conservative 'Christian' parties in New Zealand have been implacably opposed to the Greens.  Dialogue between them on environmental issues has not been possible. For an overview of the Greens in New Zealand, see, Tim Bale and John Wilson, 'The Greens', in New Zealand Government and Politics (fourth edition), edited by Raymond Miller, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 392-402.

[16] Sean McDonagh, To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987), pp. 137, 138.

[17] See for example, Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, pp. 10, 11; Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, ed., Tending the Garden: Essays on the Gospel and the Earth (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), p. 51; Brennan R. Hill, Christian Faith and the Environment (New York: Orbis Books, 1998), pp. 2, 3, 40, 269; R. J. Berry, ed., The Care of Creation (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), p.26; Carolyn M. King, Habitat of Grace: Biology, Christianity and the Global Environmental Crisis (Adelaide: Openbook Publishers, 2002), pp. 129, 130, 148, 155, 156; C. G. Bloore, ed., Christians, the Environment and Justice (Dunedin: Social Justice Workgroup, Knox Church Dunedin, 2003), p.29: Geering, pp. 17, 18. White's article is reprinted in full in Berry and Schaeffer. It would probably take less space to list the books that do not refer to White's article.

[18] This idea was planted it widely in evangelical churches in the nineteenth century by the prominent American evangelist D. L. Moody who believed that the world was a wrecked ship destined for ruin. See M. Laird Simons, 'Dwight Lyman Moody' (third to last paragraph) n.d., <http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/biomoody> [accessed June 11, 2008].

19 The apocalyptic view was a response to the nuclear threat and ecological problems by a segment of evangelical Christianity. The most well known proponent of this among Christians was Hal Lindsay.  In his book The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), he explains that his ideas are influenced by J. N. Darby, an early Plymouth Brethren leader. Darby's ideas arise from a Western linear process imposed on the New Testament book of Revelation.

[20] I use anthropocentric as opposed to ecocentric or theocentric. Michael S. Northcott uses the term humanocentric. See Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 124-141.

[21] There is some irony that a term currently used to describe Christian work among people should have had its origin in nature.

[22] Peter Harris, Under the Bright Wings (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000), pp. 1-3.

[23] Richard Storey, interviewed by David Calderwood, Hamilton, April 12, 2008.

[24] Storey, interview, April 12, 2008.

[25] Berry, pp. 28,29,187.

[26] Berry, p. 15.

[27] They also opened other centres in North America, India and Kenya and have run symposia on environmental issues since the mid-1980s. Berry, p.189. Granberg-Michaelson, p.6. Regent College in Vancouver have done the same in conjunction with Christian environmental groups including A Rocha. Recent examples are Creation and Gospel (2001) and Creation Groaning (2003).

[28] Berry, pp. 15, 17. The full text of the Declaration is on pp. 18-22.

[29] Berry, pp. 132, 133.

[30] Harris, Creation and Gospel, Disc 4, Track 4.

[31] Loren Wilkinson, 'New Age, New Consciousness, and the New Creation', in Granberg-Michaelson, pp. 26,27.

[32] Storey, interview, April 12, 2008.

[33] Berry, pp. 30,188,189.

[34] West Hamilton Anglican parish is one example.

[35] Portuguese for 'little cross'.

[36] This section is a summary of the A Rocha story in Portugal from Harris, Under the Bright Wings.

[37] The forest had once stretched from Somalia to Mozambique.

[38] Peter Harris, Kingfisher's Fire (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2008), pp. 65-71.

[39] For the full story, see Dave and Anne Bookless, Planetwise (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008).

[40] Storey, interview, April 12, 2008.

[41] A Rocha Switzerland, the nineteenth organisation, is currently being established.

[42] Peter Harris, keynote speech on May 31, 2008 at the A Rocha Aotearoa New Zealand conference, Raglan, New Zealand.